The development of pharmaceutical painkillers is on the decline as the placebo effect is on the rise in the United States. According to neuroscientist Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy, over 90% of promising painkillers for neuropathic pain and cancer have all failed during the advanced testing phases of clinical trials. Drug companies are having an extremely difficult time getting new pain medicines approved. A new study published in the journal Pain suggests that the failings aren’t due to the drugs’ ineffectiveness, but rather to the growing placebo response in America.
Painkiller vs. Placebo
Previous research shows that the placebo effect is growing when tested against antidepressants and antipsychotics. Canadian researchers at McGill University in Montreal were curious to see how the placebo response measured up against painkillers. Researchers examined 84 clinical trials from1990-2013 that were conducted to test the effectiveness of potential painkillers for the treatment of chronic neuropathic pain that strikes the nervous system. Thirty-five of these trials were from the United States, while the others were from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. No significant changes in placebo response were found in any of the countries…except for America, where the placebo effect has risen a staggering amount over the 23-year period. In 1996 pharmaceutical painkillers were shown to be 27% more effective than placebos, but by 2013 painkillers were shown to be only 9% as effective!
Researchers theorize that the placebo response has grown stronger in America because trials here are getting larger and more expensive, which affects patients’ expectations. The patient is more impressed by the study and therefore more convinced that their pain will get better.
According to Jeffrey Mogil, who directs the pain-genetics lab at McGill University in Montreal and led the analysis, “There are a lot of people in the pain field who believe the drugs that are failing clinical trials actually work, it’s just that the trials can’t show it.”
Benedetti disagrees, saying, “I don’t think that controlling the placebo response will increase the number of successful trials. What drug companies have to do is to find more effective drugs.”
Either way, it seems that this latest trial is further evidence that the mind has the power to heal. Believe hard enough and you can release feel-good endorphins to tame the pain.